Lawmakers Reach Deal
To Expand Surveillance
By SIOBHAN GORMAN and SARAH LUECK
June 19, 2008 10:43 a.m.
WASHINGTON -- After more than a year of partisan acrimony over government surveillance powers, Democratic and Republican leaders have agreed to a bipartisan deal that would be the most sweeping rewrite of spy powers in three decades. The House is likely to vote on the measure Friday, House aides said.
Removing the final barrier to action on the measure, which has been hashed out in recent weeks by senior lawmakers in both parties, House Democratic leaders decided to allow a vote on the bill, despite the opposition of many in their party.
The new agreement broadens the authority to spy on people in the U.S. and provides conditional legal immunity to companies that helped the government eavesdrop after the 2001 terrorist attacks, according to congressional aides in both parties.
The deal, if adopted, would bring the spy activities of a controversial National Security Agency surveillance program permanently under the law. That would allow the government, in certain circumstances, to eavesdrop on U.S. citizens without a specific warrant. It would also expand government spy powers to monitor communications between the U.S. and overseas to collect intelligence on topics beyond terrorism.
The agreement would also pave the way for companies such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. to shed the nearly 40 lawsuits they face for allegedly participating in a prior version of the NSA program, which have cast a shadow over their reputation on Wall Street and Main Street. To win immunity, they would have to pass review from a U.S. District Court.
It faces hurdles to becoming law, namely whether it will have enough support from other lawmakers in both parties in the House. Telecommunications companies, which have lobbied lawmakers aggressively in recent weeks, support the compromise as does the White House.
Critical to sealing the deal was a compromise that would grant conditional immunity to telecommunications companies for assistance they provided from September 2001 through January 2007. If the companies can show a federal district court judge "substantial evidence" they received a written request from the attorney general or head of an intelligence agency stating the president authorized the surveillance and determined it to be lawful, the cases against them will be dismissed.
The compromise would overhaul a 1978 law known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, enacted in the wake of Nixon-era abuses in which the NSA and other agencies spied on political enemies. The FISA law created a secret national-security court that would issue orders permitting the government to spy on people in the U.S. Any domestic spying had to be done with an order from that court.
The post-9/11 NSA spy program bypassed the FISA court and eavesdropped on communications between the U.S. and overseas without a court order. Its revelation in 2005 sparked a furious debate about the remit of the government's spying powers and produced a complex and sometimes head-spinning series of debates and votes in Congress as both parties pushed for the political advantage.
The House Democratic leadership's decision to move forward on the measure reflects a calculation by House leaders to complete action on the issue, to prevent it from becoming a distraction in a campaign season during which they hope to focus on economic, not national-security issues. The House is likely to approve the measure with significant support from Republicans and the measure is expected to win Senate approval easily.